Out over the air it goes, like a mating call sponsored by Absolut, this primal scream of adoration for a woman whose celebrity was garnered by having her trip through the turnstile to Hugh Hefner’s bedroom recorded for posterity. She has spent the previous 15 minutes doing what she has been now so thoroughly trained to do, Grasshopper to the paparazzi’s Master Po: She has thrust out her hip, tilted her head, and flashed her tight smile for the cameras, professional and iPhone. She babbled to rumpled old men who still believe they’re reporters. And then she sashayed here, inside the tinsel bacchanalia that is the Pool at Harrah’s, where now, a half-hour past midnight, she works her way down a rope line like Sarah Palin at a country barbecue.
The official name of the Harrah’s swim club’s nighttime identity is the Pool After Dark, Batman to the daylight iteration’s Bruce Wayne. Its most noticeable quality is that it’s loud. Ear-crushingly, teeth-rattlingly loud. A DJ unleashes techno music in giant rolling thumps that almost ripple across the pool. Weekends, the doors open at 10; things get lively at one, crazy at 2:30, and downright loony at four, closing time. The cover charges range from $10 on a random Wednesday to $75 if Diddy is hosting. Some people dance—no small feat in a club with a slate floor slicked with spilled beer and leading directly into a body of water. But nobody really comes to the Pool for that. They come for the Kendras, both real and imitation varieties.
“Kendra! Over here! I want a kiss!” shouts a beefy guy bobbing in the throng, raising a can of Coors Light in toast. “We love you!!!” screams a gaggle of girls two rows in front of him, their spaghetti straps already forlornly sliding off their shoulders. There is additional whoofing (from the boys) and whooping (from the girls) and woo-hooing all around. The Pool is big on woo-hooing.
Kendra Wilkinson, if you don’t know her, is one of the newish breed of reality-TV stars who have successfully parlayed their notoriety into appearance fees at everything from conventions to the opening of the new Kerbeck dealership. Aside from her apprenticeship as one of Hef’s courtesans, she is best known as the wife of Hank Baskett, the thoroughly unremarkable ex-Eagles wide receiver now pumping life into his own feckless fame through the couple’s current TV show, appropriately titled Kendra on Top. Kendra is probably most famous for her boobs, two perfect orbs that jut out like matching bowling balls, which she used to great effect during her season on Dancing With the Stars, where she once sniped at a judge who criticized her for not being ladylike: “I just don’t care about it.”
As if to prove this point, Kendra shimmies across the stage to earn the five-figure appearance fee she’s being paid to “host” this Saturday-night party.
“What’s up, muthafuckas?!!!” she screams into the mic. More woo-hooing. “Who’s ready to party with the most awesome motherfuckers in the world?!!” The crowd screams, jumps, thrashes, a frenzy of Kendra. “Let’s fucking parrrrrrr-ty!!!”
Then she’s gone, whisked off to her private blue-and-white-striped cabana with her posse of similar Barbies, one that includes Julie Dorenbos, wife of Eagles long-snapper Jon, and Susie Celek, ex-wife of Eagles tight end Brent. They sit, their unlined faces taut, their long legs smooth and tanned and shiny, like roped-off figures at Madame Tussauds.
“It’s been four years now that I have been coming here, and I cannot tell you how much fun I have every single time,” Kendra tells me. She’s in spiky snakeskin heels and an off-white lace dress with, as far as I can tell, nothing on underneath, her nipples poking through like tiny erasers. Her lustrous blond hair is half-pulled back into a tight pony; both of her eyes are bloodshot. I ask her if she’s tired, and she stares at me like I’m crazy. “No. Never,” she replies with emphasis. “Because I love meeting them. Other celebrities, they don’t do this kind of thing; they don’t want to meet people, their fans. But I do. I owe them. Do you understand?” she says, looking at me intently. “I owe them.”
An hour later, Kendra climbs back onstage, now wearing a pair of dark cat-eye sunglasses with white plastic frames, which gives her the look of a very sexy blind person. She prowls back and forth, throwing her hands up in gangsta poses and screaming “What’s up?” and “Woooooo!,” which I soon discover are the only two pieces of verbal currency one needs to successfully engage in conversation at the Pool After Dark.
Jamie, a sinewy 22-year-old from Melville, New York, who is here with two girlfriends, stands next to me, her eyes gazing adoringly at the stage. “Oh my God, I love her,” she says. “I want a career like hers.”
The first thing you need to know about the Pool After Dark (henceforth known as PAD) is that it is very, very glamorous. Ask any Long Island girl here, stuffed into a tube-sock of a dress and teetering on six-inch heels, her hair blown out to the consistency of tissue paper, and she’ll confirm this. There are many girls from Long Island at PAD, as well as girls from Jersey (North and South), the Northeast and South Philly. Boys, too—somebody’s got to pay for the drinks. But it’s the girls you notice.
During the day, the Pool is of your standard-issue hotel variety, filled with doughy, pasty middle-aged men lying on chaises, sneaking furtive glances at young women in bikinis as their equally doughy and pasty middle-aged wives lie next to them, absorbed in Danielle Steel. The Pool is landscaped with soaring palm trees and assorted other flora and fauna and enclosed in a huge glass dome, which creates the feeling of being inside a very stylish terrarium, or perhaps the Roman Empire as decorated by Snooki. Thanks to some magical air system, it doesn’t smell chlorinated, like the pool at the Y, but rather, at night at least, like a mixture of vanilla and vodka.
And oh, those nights. The nights are what have made the Pool famous, or more accurately, infamous.
The Pool opened on Memorial Day weekend 2008, a work in progress, or what Howard Weiss, who has a very long and fancy title but is basically the director of partying, charitably calls “a little chaotic.” Over the ensuing four years PAD has refined its act, mainly through a muscular programming-and-marketing annual budget of two million bucks, much of which is spent on luring D-list celebrity hosts—ranging from Vanilla Ice to Nicky Hilton to Dennis Haskins (a.k.a. Mr. Belding on Saved By the Bell)—and spreading the gospel of the Pool’s glitzy allure through 65 independent party promoters, who all have email lists bursting with wannabe Kendras.
“It’s a very important asset. We’re looking to I.D. this as the biggest pool party on the East Coast, and working to make it the biggest pool party in the world,” Weiss tells me one afternoon in his office in the bowels of Harrah’s. Ibiza may have something to say about that, but Weiss’s chutzpah is admirable. He’s only 30, absurdly young for a casino executive, but one look at him explains why he’s been so successful at making PAD a must-visit destination for the turks willing to pony up a grand for bottle service and the tarty girls who love them. Weiss’s hair is gelled to porcupine perfection, and he’s tan and fit and square-jawed in a Survivor-contestant sort of way. In a word, he can market to his target demographic because even if he isn’t them, he’s of them.
“Here, they can feel like they’re part of the celebrity’s entourage, because they really can get that close,” he’s saying. “You see that with Kendra, when we bring her onto the red carpet for pictures and then bring her inside. People want to be part of that energy, part of that celebrity experience.”
Like Nicole, a bride-to-be from Toms River whom I meet on my first night at the Pool. She’s having her bachelorette party in a cabana (total price: $3,600). Nicole has wedged her, shall we say, Rubenesque body into a rather unflattering skin-tight mini-dress, and is wearing a name tag that says HELLO MY NAME IS … THE BRIDE, BITCHES! “I like that it feels upscale,” she says of PAD, sipping a Grey Goose, cranberry and club soda. She looks around at the swirling pastel lights, those towering palm trees. “And that it’s like you’re in the tropics.”
When I check in on Nicole and her girls a few hours later, they are, predictably, a little looser, bopping around their cabana, which has now been roped off. “We had to,” says Kristen, Nicole’s maid of honor. “People kept just coming in.” At PAD, exclusivity is everything.
“I’m not loving this,” Nicole says to me, thrusting her drink in my face. “Try this.”
I take a timid sip through the straw. “Tastes okay to me,” I say.
“Ha! You just sucked on a penis!” she laughs, and I see that she’s indeed correct: Her straw is in the shape of a pink phallus, complete with testicles. She takes a long, slow draw. “Mmmm, yummy.”
One of her gal pals sidles up to me. “You should try mine,” she says. “Mine is black.”
“You gotta find us some cute girls, man.”
Ryan is asking for my help. He’s 24, here with his boys from Yonkers. His friend Marco, 26, is getting married, and the boys have ponied up a few grand to rent one of the most expensive corners in the place, a bubbling hot tub that comes with bottles of Belvedere vodka and mixers. The Yonkers Boys look identical: buff, gelled, and outfitted in short-sleeve plaid snap oxfords, jeans and sneakers, like an army provisioned by Banana Republic. The girls at PAD may totter around in stilettos and dresses like sausage casings, but boys will be boys. Weiss told me that they used to enforce a stricter dress code, but eventually they gave in—guys want the girls to look nice, but don’t seem to care if they themselves do.
“They gotta be cute,” Ryan says. He’s still talking about the girls I need to find. “I don’t care about this”—he makes a circling motion around his chest—“but they gotta have this,” he says, making a cupping-ass motion.
The Pool After Dark may have a different vibe than the club at the Borgata— Murmur—or the new HQ at Revel, but in the end, all nightclubs boil down to what they’ve always boiled down to, which is dancing, getting wasted and getting laid, not necessarily in that order.
Allow me to introduce Exhibit A: Bennie the Jet.
His real name is Bennie Blanco, which is cartoony enough, but then again, Bennie the Jet isn’t a bad moniker if you’re looking for an icebreaker in a nightclub. Especially this one. Bennie is from Bloomfield, in North Jersey, part of 13 guys celebrating—you guessed it—the impending nuptials of one Donato, 26. Bennie has dressed to impress—a gray three-piece suit and red shirt and tie, accented by some funky bracelets and arrogant aviator sunglasses. He’s also, it turns out, hungry. “I could go for a McChicken and fries,” he says, addressing his cabana mates, “and a Big Mac, and a McGriddle—are they serving breakfast yet?” He watches me scribbling all this down, looks at me suspiciously. “You’re not from some gay magazine, are you?”
Like the Yonkers Boys, the Bloomfield Boys also want me to bring back some ladies—I’m beginning to feel like a pimp—and Bennie is serious about it. “You better come back. If you don’t, I’m gonna come for you. I work in construction.” He tilts his head. “You like me?”
One of his pals looks around, takes a forlorn swig of his beer. “Everyone here is in a bachelorette party. Everybody’s gettin’ married.”
Not everybody. Over the course of this (long) evening, I’ll meet the Staten Island Girls—one Kristin, two Melanies, an April and a Natalie—who are both happy (Melanie 2 won the flip-cup tournament at the Golden Nugget earlier; “It’s been a good day,” she says) and cautious about navigating the fog of sex that wafts through PAD. “They want to come up and dance with us, and I am just not in the mood,” April, a wiry 26-year-old brunette who works at a doctor’s office but talks like a cop, says of the guys who bump and grind their way around the Pool’s perimeter. “So I walk away. I’m rude. I am very rude to them.” But for every April …
“We’re gonna be here … all … night!!” screams Greyson, 26, a pixieish human resources manager standing ankle-deep in the water on the other side of the pool, dressed in white bridal crinoline (she’s getting hitched next month) and giving off a very un-April vibe. For one thing, she’s bopping with some shirtless dude. I’m beginning to wonder if the Bloomfield Boy was right—maybe everybody here is getting married. But by the time I wander back to the Yonkers hot tub, things are looking up—there are several girls with their feet dangling in the warm bubbles. John, a bald 22-year-old bouncer who looks like a younger Mr. Clean, invites two more to join.
I notice one of his buddies standing apart, distantly sipping a cocktail. “Well, it looks like your party’s started,” I tell him, nodding to the ladies.
He scoffs. “Sure, dude. Do me a favor: Take a good look at those girls. Then you’ll understand why I’m standing here, facing the other way.”
Ouch. I’m reminded of something a friend told me years ago during my own (mercifully long-past) clubbing days: The catch-22 of any nightclub is that while everyone is looking to connect, everyone also thinks he can do better. Everyone is always looking to trade up.
A mantra for the whole PAD experience. It used to be that you would spy some random celebrity and rush over to get your picture taken, a keepsake of your intersection with the famous: an old game-show host, the local weatherman. Or you’d pose with one of those cardboard cutouts of Bill Clinton or Madonna, giggling as you struck some silly pose. Then came reality television, and the whole concept of celebrity was upended. Because now you don’t have to pose with anyone else. Get a blowout, buy platform shoes, slap on enough Crest Whitestrips to turn your teeth the color of a porcelain toilet, and voilà!—you’re the star. All you need is a red carpet and bottle service.
No one is coming to the Pool to see Kendra Wilkinson—they’re coming to be Kendra Wilkinson. We’ve created an entire demographic that looks at her and sees not some vile media creation but a career aspiration. Call it the Kardashianing of America: If I just perfect my head-tilt, if I have the right boobs and the smarter mouth and I’m just a little more outrageous than everyone else, I too can have an entourage and free clothes and get invited to parties for the simple act of being … me. The Pool After Dark is less a nightclub than a training academy, feeding the desperate narcissism of a generation that has swept aside accomplishment for the seductive glitter of notoriety.
Or at least embraced the phallus-shaped drinking straw.
At quarter to two in the morning, I watch as five girls dressed head-to-toe in expensive fashion—one is wearing the new Versace graphic chrome-yellow dress—kick off their shoes and beatifically wade into the pool, like nuns at Lourdes. PAD is not a place for the practical. It is the place for statement. For being noticed.
Manecha, whose twin sister Tanecha (I’m not making that up) is one of the girls now splashing in her couture in the pool, watches from the side.
“Are you having a good time?” I scream above the blaring music, which is Travie McCoy begging to be a billionaire.
“Oh yes!” she answers brightly. She glances around, taking in the swirling lights and the palm trees and the splashing and the drinking and the thump-thump-thumping of the bass beat. “I was worried about the humidity in here, about the sanitary-ness. But everybody’s having a great time,” she says. She smiles. “I guess that’s all that counts.”
It’s approaching three in the morning when I drag myself out of the Pool, metaphorically speaking. Then I do what all people leaving a boozy nightclub in the middle of the night do—I stop for a slice of pizza.
I sit at a counter at the food court directly across from the Pool. Forty feet in front of me is a backdrop, like the ones they use at movie premieres, stenciled with the logos for PAD and a vodka label. This is what’s known in show business as a “step and repeat,” a mini red carpet where the celebs who host Harrah’s parties pause to pose for the paparazzi, their images the backbone of next week’s Us Weekly. It’s kept lit when PAD is open, allowing aspiring Khloes and Kourtneys to practice their close-ups. It was Howard Weiss’s idea, and like almost everything else at the Pool, it’s both deeply disturbing and fucking brilliant.
During my nights at Harrah’s, I’ve spent hours watching girls flock over to the backdrop like so many sequined pelicans, squealing as friends click-click-click their teapot poses and come-hither lip-pursing, their ample bootys jutting out like the Liberty Bell. It is these photos that are Harrah’s stealth marketing tool, Instagramming the Pool’s empty glamour for all the world to see. Or at least your friends on Facebook. That is, after all, the point: to create a permanent record of your fabulousness, to preserve your celebrity even if you never come close to ever actually being one.
In the car on the way over tonight, I heard a song by Ke$ha, the poster girl for the insolence that defines the new Generation Shameless. Some of the lyrics stuck in my head:
We’re dancing like we’re dumb
Our bodies go numb
We’ll be forever young
You know we’re superstars
We are who we are.
I down the last of my pizza. Three bony glamazons in strappy high-heeled sandals are clomping by me toward the hotel exit when one catches a glimpse of the backdrop.
“Oh wait, you guys,” she says, tugging at a friend’s wrist and pulling her toward the lights. “Let’s be famous.”